The Old Testament is Dying

I completed a key summer reading goal: The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017) by Brent A. Strawn of Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Strawn divides his book into three parts: (1) The Old Testament as a Dying Language (chs. 1-3), (2) Signs of Morbidity (chs. 4-6), and (3) Path to Recovery (chs. 7-9). Let me say from the outset: buy this book.

This book does not represent the average call to fix biblical illiteracy. Rather, Strawn OTDyingapproaches the problem from a medical vantage point and makes a diagnosis that the OT is dying or already dead (pp. 4-5). But in this case the patient is a language, the language of the OT and the Bible in general (pp. 6-13). Therefore, the language of Bible finds itself in need of a doctor treating a terminal patient rather than an English teacher helping one learn to read. Whatever one thinks of the analogy between the Bible and a language (and I think Strawn has done a good job noting the strengths and weaknesses of this analogy throughout the book such as on p. 16ff), he has struck the right tone with the imagery of language death. Some readers will not find the material on modern linguistics helpful or integral to the argument (such as the material in ch. 3 “On Language Growth and Change, Contact and Death”). But wading through this chapter and like comments throughout continues to stress how the OT has fallen into disrepair and is dying and also how to revive it.

Unfortunately, specialists are to blame for much of the problem. Strawn writes, “Indeed, the cold hard fact is that, thanks to large swaths of sermons, hymns, and liturgy, Christians are learning precisely how not to speak the language, practice the language, hear the language, or learn the language that is the Old Testament, whatever their age—from smallest tyke to octogenarian and everything in between and beyond. The Old Testament is dying, and it seems that the Christian practices of sermon, song, and lectionary are at least partly to blame” (p. 57). The Bible as a language is dying; that is, no one or very few people speak it fluently according to its own grammatical and semantic structure so to speak. At best, the vast majority of people (intellectuals like Richard Dawkins included) speak pidgin Old Testament and pidgin Bible as a whole; that is, most speak only the bits and pieces of Bible they picked up from various quarters and have forgotten the rest (p. 78). The New Atheism (ch. 4) and New (and Old) Marcionism (ch. 5) don’t speak fluent Bible but pidgin Bible; that is, they don’t read the Christian biblical canon on its own terms, its own categories, its own languages in concert with its history of interpretation as fluent, native speakers do, but rather as speakers of the pidgin, not even able to form complete sentences in the native language any more. The ‘happiologists’ or preachers of the health and wealth gospel (ch. 6) speak a new language or creole altogether forming new syntactical patterns and importing new semantic freight, thus creating a new and different language altogether. Part 2 of this book alone is well worth the price of the work.

From my own experience, I knew I would agree with much of Strawn’s “diagnosis.” Some will quibble about his data set, questioning whether he has painted with too broad a brush. Evangelicals I have talked with about this book question whether their churches and traditions were taken into account. But we should all be able to agree that Strawn’s diagnosis of the culture’s (in)ability to speak Bible is spot on.

More interesting to me than the diagnosis was Strawn’s suggestions for recovery. First, dead, or almost dead, languages can be revived, so there is some good news (ch. 7). Second, in ch. 8, Deuteronomy becomes the road map to full recovery, and these points are reiterated helpfully in ch. 9. Strawn calls for (1) Regular Usage in formative moments of Christian practice and education (pp. 213-6); (2) pastors must have adequate linguistic training (pp. 217-8); (3) the language teacher must be intentional about teaching the language (pp. 218-20); (4) creating bilinguals (pp. 220-2); (5) “Bothness.”

Each of these points deserves attention, and together, they should lead to resuscitation of the patient, but I want to examine the last one here. First, by “bothness” Strawn means “the inextricably intertwined relationship of the Testaments and that both must proceed together, equally yoked, as it were” (p. 227). He also intends one further meaning: the full language of Scripture will not tolerate reductionism such as “God is good” or “God is love” (p. 229). If Strawn had only intended the last sense of “bothness,” I could have agreed entirely with this point. Here, for example, he has in mind that both God’s love and his justice must be preserved if one is to speak fluent Bible. Choosing one over the other is pigeon Bible not the native language; a crucial point, and I am glad he made it forcefully. This kind of “bothness” will help OT language acquisition moving forward.

KTCBut Strawn also says that such schemes as “the Use of the OT in the NT,” “promise-fulfillment,” or Christocentrism or any other approach where the OT needs or requires the NT text alongside it or Christ must always be preached from the OT are not working to revive the language of Old Testament (p. 223-9). Clearly, we want to avoid supersessionist approaches where the OT is viewed as deficient and in need of “correction” (p. 223). The OT is not deficient when properly understood. Marcion was clearly wrong. However, Strawn may want to revisit recent approaches to the unity of the Bible such as Kingdom Through Covenant by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, which attempts to locate the Bible’s metanarrative along the narrative plot line of the biblical covenants across the full biblical canon. Anecdotally, many who have come into contact with this work either by reading it or hearing lectures on it come away with a profound understanding of and a desire to read the Old Testament afresh.

Strawn fails to mention the OT’s eschatology (even in Deuteronomy 30!) that finds its fulfillment in the NT in Christ. Several of the early Christian canon lists (by no means all or most) and codices end on the expectancy that Daniel creates with his prophecy of the 70 weeks in chapter 9. This kind of eschatology does not erase the OT; it helps us properly locate it. The righteousness of God, Paul says, is apart from law, but the Law and Prophets testify to it. Faith does not nullify the law covenant according to Paul, rather he upholds the Law (= OT). Only once the OT is read in proper perspective can we uphold it (Romans 3:31; cf. Galatians and Hebrews for readings of the OT gone wrong). Epiphanius of Salamis (ca. 375 CE) commenting on how Jews could be instructed by the Law, if they receive Christ, not with regard to its abolition but to its fulfillment says:

(5) Now all of these sacred books were teaching Judaism and the commandments of the Law until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ. (6) And they [the Jews] would have prospered by being trained in the Law, if they had received Christ, who was under the trainer (now I speak concerning the Law) that he was both proclaimed and prophesied to them, in order that by receiving his divine nature and his incarnational appearing, they might learn not the abolition of the Law, but the fulfillment of the Law, since there were types in the Law, but the truth is in the Gospel (Panarion, 8).

Thus the Law contained types but the truth or substance is in the Gospel. This type-antitype scheme does not lead early Christians to see the abolition of the OT but rather its fulfillment. The full, robust language of the Bible’s eschatological continuity is incorporated in Epiphanius’s short discussion of the matter. I still believe that Christians will be best served and will ultimately gain fluency in Bible by preserving the “bothness” of the OT and NT by keeping the two Testaments in their proper tension and proper redemptive-historical placement with Christ as the OT’s telos. This criticism of the work should not detract from the book’s overall worth and value. It’s not a major feature of the work (only a relative few pages at the end of the last chapter), and Strawn is probably reacting against the more extreme forms of supersessionism present in much of American Christianity. Still, I register this critique because the reader would benefit from the unity of the Bible here given Strawn’s burden to revive Bible fluency.

In conclusion, Strawn has provided a wonderful volume that diagnoses the terminal patient that is the language of the Old Testament and the Bible in general. Many will find this volume useful for understanding the dying biblical literacy of American Christians, and hopefully pastors and professors will take the dire situation seriously and seek to foster biblical language acquisition. I know I return to the seminary classroom this fall with a renewed sense of purpose and a deeper understanding of the great challenge of teaching the language of Bible.

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2 thoughts on “The Old Testament is Dying

  1. “At best, the vast majority of people (intellectuals like Richard Dawkins included) speak pidgin Old Testament and pidgin Bible as a whole;”

    14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 1 For. 2:14
    I am wondering if this verse applies to “intellectuals” who are not Christians.

    “But we should all be able to agree that Strawn’s diagnosis of the culture’s (in)ability to speak Bible is spot on.”

    I have not read Strawn’s book yet but I have heard that we Christians speak too much in Bible speak for the non-Christian.

    I am just a lay person and depend upon the books ( Strong’s, Louw Nida) in my library that explain the original language to me. I do not write or read any of the original language’s (Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic) I do know how important they are to a proper understanding of His word. So my question or point is can lay people who only read His word in our English translations truly understand His intentions?

    I read this verse and wonder does this mean only in the original language?

    11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
    but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:11

    Thanks John

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